The artifice of theater – all in a kiss

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Every actor has a stage kiss story.backstage-with-anthony-byrnes

Maybe it’s the time you had to kiss the horrible class clown. Or the time it got a little steamier than you expected. Or the time in that blackout, where Nina whispered to Trigorin, “Kiss me like I’m your girlfriend! … Or your boyfriend? Or both!!”

A stage kiss is so delicious because it’s a moment that mixes artifice with reality. The reasons might be fake but lips touching lips? That’s intimate (even if it’s an awkward, forced intimacy).

Sarah Ruhl’s play, “Stage Kiss,” that opened at the Geffen Playhouse last night, is built around that slippery ground where artifice meets reality.

The kiss (or kisses) at the heart of her knowing love letter to the theater happen between two actors who long ago were young lovers. We imagine that years before the play, the two had the kind of passionate, problematic love affair that young actors so often have. Then a fork in the road: she decides to have a family, marry a financier, buy a station wagon. He continues living the dream and sleeping on a sofa bed.

Years pass. She auditions for a revival of a some 1930’s cocktail melodrama opening in New Haven and lands the lead. First day of rehearsal, who should be playing the role of her long lost love that cures her of her dreadful disease? You guessed it: her long lost love. Of course, the role requires much kissing and Ms. Ruhl mines it for all the comedy and awkwardness it’s worth.

If you are a theater person, or have ever kissed one, you’ll love the backstage drama that ensues. Act one has a tongue in cheek silliness that pokes fun at all the horribly awkward and ridiculous theatrics that are part of putting on a play – especially a bad one.

On this light, comedic level, the production’s a success… but that’s only one level of Sarah Ruhl’s script.

The fun of act one, and any backstage drama, is the opposing styles of what’s ‘real’ and what’s a performance.  When are people acting and when are they ‘themselves.’  It’s a game of layers.

In order for Ms. Ruhl’s play to be more than a one trick pony (gosh, kissing an old lover onstage is awkward, isn’t it? I wonder what will happen?), the play has to expand the metaphor and get into that slippery territory where we, the audience, lose our grasp on what’s real and what’s artifice.

Ms. Ruhl tackles this challenge by giving us a play where, as her imagined director says of the play within a play, “The tone is really slippery, isn’t it. Hmm.” Where act one winks an eye at mid-atlantic cocktail plays of the last century, act two becomes a catalogue of more recent acting cliches and styles (think: Shepard, Shanley, Lanford Wilson, et al.).

Bart DeLorenzo directs into the comedy of these worlds. He embraces the different styles, but superficially, and none of them are really dangerous. That’s a mistake. In actor speak, the production never really “goes there.”

For “Stage Kiss” to support it’s two acts and 2 hours and ten minutes, that game of layers has to get more complex and the tension between artifice and reality needs to become more urgent. There should be moments where the audience thinks to themselves, “wait, what? Things just got real. That’s not artifice. Those aren’t two actors, those are two real people.” (or maybe, within the meta-theatrical world of the play, “Those aren’t two characters, that’s the actors really speaking to each other.”)

That’s the game of the script but this production doesn’t play along.

You can feel it in the top of act two when the two actors, having rekindled their long ago romance, find themselves on the actor’s sofa bed having just had sex.  At least that’s what the text tells us. It’s a kind of “Frankie and Johnny” raw, sexual, partially clothed moment – at least, in my mind. The dialogue,

HE: Let’s do it.

SHE: Again?

HE: Again.

SHE: How many times can you do it in two hours?

HE: Let’s find out.

But at the Geffen, the two actors are still in their evening attire. He’s in dinner jacket and pants. he’s in a gown. When is the last time you rekindled a long lost romance, decided to chuck your marriage, have an affair, followed your lover back to his seedy apartment, had steamy, passionate sex on a sofa bed, and then decided it’d be more comfortable to put back on your evening attire?

I thought so.

I quibble with this costuming choice because it points to the territory that’s in the script but not onstage. Act two should get kind of dark and scary, at least at moments. Ms. Ruhl gives us these hints:

SHE: Sorry. You don’t call someone a whore and throw a large electric fan at them.

HE: It was at a book-case.

SHE: The book-case was in my direction.

HE: Sorry.

SHE: It scared me for a long time.

At the Geffen these lines feel perfunctory, the gravitas absent. That robs us of the grounding and pressure that keeps the comedy aloft. What we’re left with is mostly artifice, fun artifice, but artifice none the less. After all, the dramatic engine of the play is a battle between a family life of stability and predictability versus  unsustainable, dangerous but intoxicating passion.

One can imagine a production of “Stage Kiss” where act two becomes an increasingly complicated master class in these different theatrical styles. Where the final fight scene, which brilliantly is a fight during the rehearsal of fight scene inside of a play within a play (how’s that for ‘meta’?) becomes a little too visceral. This isn’t that production.

In the end, “Stage Kiss” is a touching, funny, redemptive evening in the theater.  If you’re a theater person, you’ll laugh knowingly, you’ll see the paths that were not taken (dramaturgically and maybe personally) and you’ll wish it was a little shorter.

But if you love theater, don’t let that stop you. There’s enough comedy to forgive the lack of tragedy.

Stage Kiss” plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through May 15th.